This old market town was relatively isolated until recently, when a sealed road from Jianchuan was completed. Shaxi lay on the main caravan route from Dali to Lijiang; roads also led west from here to the Mekong, Salween and beyond to Burma. Yang Xiao spent several weeks in spring exploring the trails around Shaxi; our most recent visit was October 10-13.

The market square, with Qing-Dynasty peformance stage on the far side. The stage is still used on festival days, but the square no longer hosts the weekly market, which has been moved to a new site on the other side of town.

The same square viewed from the other side. Its a wonderfully tranquil spot at any time of the day, much lovelier than Lijiangs main square even before that town was turned into a theme park.

Shaxi viewed over the Heihui River. This is reckoned to be the best surviving example of a market town on the Tea & Horse Caravan Trail. The impetus to clean up and preserve Shaxis historic sites came from the towns inclusion on the World Monuments Funds list of “100 Most Endangered Sites” in 2002. The subsequent Shaxi Rehabilitation Project was a joint initiative of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the local county government. From 2004 to 2006, this project spent US$1.3 million to renovate the market square and certain other sites in the town and surrounding villages, and to lay the groundwork for further “eco-tourism” and poverty alleviation development in the Shaxi valley.

Friday is market day. Eight-five percent of the people in Shaxi belong to the Bai ethnic group, the traditional masters of the Dali region (Shaxi is about three hours drive from Dali); many of the villages in the mountains around the valley, however, are inhabited by Yi people, whose vivid sense of style is well illustrated by the lady standing on the left of this picture.

A group of Yi ladies heads home from market.

The main street leading through old Shaxi to the market square and the east gate.

The east gate at breakfast time.

One of three courtyards in the restored Lao Ma Dian, an ancient inn where visiting caravan leaders once stayed. It is now a beautiful hotel run by a Taiwanese lady whose main purpose appears to be to preserve the buildings rather than make money.

The early-morning view from our room in the Lao Ma Dian, which stands on the north side of the market square.

The Lao Ma Dian from outside, plus our own caravan leader Yang Xiao. We borrowed this mule for a couple of days to trek into the mountains east of Shaxi.

Allen Zhang, who has lived in Shaxi for the last two years, joined our short excursion into the mountains. Allen runs the only bar to speak of in Shaxi…

…in which we were the only customers. Allen doesnt make much money, either!

Each village around Shaxi has its own kuixinge, several of which have performance stages. The kuixinge is a small temple to a god of learning, which the Bai people traditionally hold in high esteem. This is the finest example outside the market square itself, located in the village of Duanjiadeng and restored by the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project. Local teacher Wu Yunxin and his wife look after this site and have added a handful of pleasant guestrooms. Wu also has a website:

The Shaxi valley is still predominantly agricultural. The rice was just ready for harvest at this time. Harvesting and threshing is all done by hand; mules and donkeys still move goods in and out of the valley along the ancient trading routes.

Our campsite, a mere two hours hike up the mountain from Shaxi. We tried fishing the lake but the carp werent interested. The hiking around Shaxi is excellent. Next year, well organize a small expedition to find a trail all the way from Dali to here, and then on to Lijiang – a complete Dali-Lijiang Caravan Trail for the first time since the 1950s.

Yang Xiaos new toy. Weve pretty much dispensed with tents for this kind of trip; a couple of tarps and were perfectly comfy.